Eritrea: '10,000 political prisoners in awful conditions'

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Thousands of political prisoners are being held by Eritrea in "unimaginably atrocious conditions", says Amnesty International, and not one has ever been charged with any crime.

The rights group says at least 10,000 people have been jailed for political reasons since President Isaias Afewerki came to power 20 years ago.

It says torture is widespread in a network of detention centres.

Eritrea's ambassador to London Tesfamicael Gerahtu denied the charges.

He told the BBC's Focus on Africa programme that the number of 10,000 people imprisoned was a "mythical" figure and that people were free to express their view in the country.

The Eritrean ambassador also confirmed that Eritrea's long-time Information Minister Ali Abdu had fled the country "about six months ago" but did not say why.

Some of those imprisoned are journalists or critics of the government, the Amnesty report says. Others have practised an unregistered religion, or tried to flee the country or avoid conscription into the army.

In most cases, prisoners' families are not informed of their whereabouts, and often never hear from their relative again.

"The government has systematically used arbitrary arrest and detention without charge to crush all opposition, to silence all dissent, and to punish anyone who refuses to comply with the repressive restrictions it places on people's lives," said Claire Beston, Amnesty's Eritrea researcher.

Eritrea in focus

  • Once an Italian colony, Eritrea gained independence from neighbouring Ethiopia in 1993 after a 32-year armed struggle
  • Relations with Ethiopia, a key US ally, deteriorated and the neighbours fought a border war between 1998 and 2000 in which some 100,000 people were killed
  • The UN imposed sanctions on Eritrea in 2009 after accusations that President Isaias Afewerki's government was backing anti-Ethiopian Islamist insurgents in Somalia
  • Eritrea is the only African country to have no privately owned news media
  • The UN estimates that 3,000 Eritreans left the country each month last year - often fleeing poverty and national service for men until the age of 40
  • Eritrea is said to be on the brink of a mining boom, but economic progress is hampered by the proportion of those in the army rather than the workforce

"Twenty years on from the euphoric celebrations of independence, Eritrea is one of the most repressive, secretive and inaccessible countries in the world."

Helicopter position

The facilities used as detention centres include underground cells or shipping containers, Amnesty says.

The group says some prisoners are left for days in what is known as the helicopter position - lying face down with their hands and feet bound together.

It says it has received many reports of deaths in detention resulting from torture, the bad conditions or suicide.

A former detainee held in a detention centre in Barentu told Amnesty:

"The room was about 2.5m by 3m [8 by 10 feet] and we were 33 people. It is very, very hot. The door is closed, the ceiling is low, about 2m. The temperature was about 50C.

"A boy, about 17 years old, was about to die. We were not permitted to speak, but we banged the door. They [the guards] told us they would kill all of us if we did not stop shouting. We couldn't do anything to help him."

Amnesty is calling for all prisoners to be either immediately charged with a recognisable crime or released.

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